Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday November 20th 2018

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African American Chamber Evolves

By Jeremy Morrison

Sitting in his office on the ground floor of the DeVilliers Square building, Brian Wyer is noticeably excited about the recent evolution of the Gulf Coast African American Chamber of Commerce.

“I’m fired up,” Wyer said. “I really am.”

Wyer isn’t just excited about the relocation of the chamber’s office, which is nestled in the heart of the Belmont-DeVilliers area, an area of the city particularly rich with African-American history. Though, he does like the location much better than the old Michigan Avenue digs that kept him hopping back and forth to downtown so frequently he’d sometimes stake out a spot at the library to work to avoid so many trips.

“Now we’re right in the hub of things,” he smiled. “People will say, ‘Hey, I’m gonna go to Five Sisters and will pop over and visit you.’ We get a lot more foot traffic.”

As president and CEO of the chamber, Wyer is excited about changes that are afoot for the organization. The Gulf Coast African American Chamber of Commerce has been through a few incarnations during its near two-decade existence, and now it’s evolving again, this time with a change in name that represents, or rather recognizes, a broader scope.

“Our name really confused people,” explained Wyer. “They thought you could only come in if you were African-American.”

As of this month, coinciding with the turnover of the fiscal year, the nonprofit organization will be known as the Gulf Coast Minority Chamber of Commerce, Inc. The moniker, Wyer hopes, will infer a more inclusive body.

“It opens it up to other minorities,” he said, explaining that the organization has always been open to anyone who wished to join, though that wasn’t widely understood. “The name change signifies that.”

This chamber, which is separate from the Greater Pensacola Chamber, represents the interests of area minority-owned businesses. The nonprofit organization works to improve the professional prospects of the minority community. It serves as a venue for networking and also works to better connect its members with local governments and other potential employers.

“We help mentor and network people, help pull them together,” Wyer said.

Wyer came on board to head up the chamber about a year ago. A native of Pensacola and graduate of the University of West Florida, he spent 20 years in Tampa working IT for PricewaterhouseCoopers before heading back to the Panhandle.

“I came in with open eyes. I just looked at everything,” Wyer said. “Over the course of a year, I saw some things we could change and make the chamber even bigger and better.”

One thing Wyer noted was that minorities outside the African-American community were not plugged into the chamber. He saw that as a missed opportunity. After speaking with members of those communities, notably the Hispanic community, he decided the chamber should adopt a more inclusive stature.

Pulling out some 2012 statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, the chamber president throws the numbers onto his desk. The numbers paint a portrait of the local minority business composition.

In 2012 in Escambia County, there were a total of 20,377 businesses. African-American-owned businesses accounted for 3,291 of these, but minority-owned companies in total amounted to 5,704. The difference was split between a collective of minority groups, including Hispanic and Asian communities as well as Native Americans.

“Now it’s just a bigger group of people to represent things,” Wyer said, adding that the chamber is not only open to minority businesses but also “those that want to network [with] and support these businesses.”

Initially considering handling this organizational change via a simpler Doing-Business-As filing, the chamber president said that he reached the decision to broadcast a wider net in the form of an entirely new 501(c)(6) organization after speaking with chamber members and staff. In addition to accomplishing a rebranding of the organization, the move also allows the organization to shake off old baggage, such as a federal tax debt inherited from years past.

“It just gives us an opportunity to start fresh,” he said. “It’s easier sometimes to start a new path than trying to patch something. Sometimes you need a new birth, a new change.”

Wyer said that most of the feedback he’s heard thus far regarding the change has been positive. But he’s aware that some people may feel differently.

“I think there may be some pushback in the community, but I really want to be more inclusive,” he said.

Wyer has also spoken with folks who don’t see the need for a separate chamber for minority communities. The Greater Pensacola Chamber, after all, serves the entirety of the business community.

On that point, Wyer disagrees. He feels minority businesses need their own representation because they face “similar challenges” and hail from “similar backgrounds” that members of the wider business community may not share.

But, the president stresses, the two chambers are not conflicting. Many members belong to both, and Wyer works with the Greater Pensacola Chamber, as well as Florida West, in an effort to improve his members‘ prospects.

“We don’t see ourselves as competition,” he said. “We have a reciprocal relationship. We have the same mission.”

The first meeting of the newly minted Gulf Coast Minority Chamber of Commerce was Oct. 16. Looking ahead to the meeting, Wyer said he expected to field some questions regarding the shift and looked forward to working with members and the community in mapping out the group’s future.

“It’ll be a very transparent meeting,” he said.

Aside from the change in name, and its implicit broadening of the net, most everything else about the chamber will remain the same. Its current membership will roll over into the new organization, as well as the status of “legacy members,” and ads purchased in the chamber’s directory will also transfer over into the new group’s inaugural directory for 2019.

The minority chamber will also continue to receive funding from both the City of Pensacola and Escambia County. The city has $25,000 allocated for the group, while the county has awarded $60,000.

Wyer said that eventually, he would like the chamber to blossom into the geography of its name and work with minority-owned businesses and those that supported them throughout the Gulf Coast region.

“Once we get things right in Pensacola,” he said, “I do want to branch out.”

But first, the group will focus on building a solid foundation locally. Wyer said he understands it will take some time to accomplish what he sees as the chamber’s fuller potential, but he knows it’ll be worth it when prospects are improved for minority businesses in the area.

“I’m not a flash in the pan, and I’m methodical,” Wyer said. “Be patient, be understanding and give us an opportunity to work through things and succeed.”